THE story of why Gordon Brown entered politics is well-known, not least because he often tells it himself. Son of a Church of Scotland minister, he was brought up with a protestant work ethic guided by a “moral compass”. An extremely bright pupil, he was fast-tracked through school and went to the University of Edinburgh aged just 16.
Initially, he harboured twin passions: sport and politics. But after a Rugby injury that left him with a detached retina, he threw himself into the latter, becoming rector of Edinburgh University in 1973 on a radical left-wing ticket. It was there that he developed a taste for ideological warfare; student politics has a deserved reputation for producing tribal Labour politicians.
He became the MP for Dunfermline East in 1983, sharing a Commons office with Tony Blair, also newly-elected; the relationship would be crucial to Brown’s success but instrumental in thwarting his ambitions.
Following the defeat of Neil Kinnock at the hands of John Major in 1992, he became shadow chancellor under John Smith. Upon Smith’s untimely death in 1994, Brown hoped to become leader but Blair emerged as favourite; he reluctantly agreed to make way in exchange for complete control over economic policy and a timetable for succession. The pair went on to win three elections, but their relationship was constantly dogged by internecine warfare.
Brown’s chancellorship started well. Giving the Bank of England control over interest rates was widely-applauded at the time (although asking it to use the Consumer Price Index measure of inflation, which excludes house price inflation, is said to have contributed to the financial crisis).
He initially stuck to predecessor Ken Clarke’s tax and spend plans, earning a reputation for prudence. His decision to scrap tax relief on pension funds hinted at a recklessness, however, while selling off gold reserves just before prices surged suggested he didn’t have the Midas touch. The Private Finance Initiative, an opaque, off-balance-sheet method of financing school and hospital buildings, also caused unease.
But it was his decision to scrap the 10p tax rate to pay for a 2p cut in the basic rate of income tax – hitting the poorest while helping the middle class – that lost the Labour party’s confidence. It proved that politicking had replaced values. Placing his opponent in checkmate occluded his reasons for becoming an MP in the first place.
After overthrowing Blair, he enjoyed a brief honeymoon but failed to call an election he would likely have won. It was downhill from there; the financial crisis cast doubt on his economic credentials, while his leadership was dogged by a series of attempted coups.
Having lost the party almost 100 seats at the election, he always knew his time was up. It is fitting that he has sacrificed his political life to the thing that dominated his final years in politics: not social justice, but keeping the Tories out of power.